The First Number

by

I am the father of eight children. As such, I receive more than my fair share of questions from children, many of which are repeats. That is, not only am I asked by my seven-yearold one day and my nine-year-old the next what my favorite color is, but they forget my answer and ask again a week later. My four-year-old will soon learn the same questions, and his little brother after him. They want to know my favorite animal and my favorite food. They have even asked before what my favorite number is. Favorite number? I understand preferring one color to another, as such touches on matters of aesthetics. I understand favorite animals as well, as each different animal uniquely manifests the glory and wisdom of God in creation. Favorite food makes sense too, even if it is just a matter of taste. But favorite number? How would one choose? “Oh, I much prefer 8 because it is divisible by both 2 and 4, whereas poor 9 is only divisible by 3.”

It is not just children, however, who find something sacred in numbers. Professional athletes have been known to pay tens of thousands of dollars to secure the rights to wear particular numbers on their jerseys. Fans, by the thousands, pay hundreds to wear those same numbers on replica jerseys. Nor is this simply a Western phenomenon. Some among the Chinese are so fascinated by the power of numbers that they will name their restaurants after them. I used to frequent one called 4-5-6. Why this obsession with numbers?

I suspect the answer is found in Eden. Numbers, because of their abstract nature, may be that place where our thinking grows closest to God’s. We hear in the harmony of music and we see in the dance of the heavenly spheres echoes and reflections of the beauty of not just creation but the Creator. In its place, this is right and proper. We should always marvel at His glory and power. But we must always remember that His ways are not our ways, His thoughts not our thoughts. We must not, as Satan tempted us, see numbers as a tool for our own power and glory.

As the tenth century drew to its conclusion, too many Christians saw in that grand, round number what they thought was a glimpse into the private thoughts of God. The millennium bug bit us, and we caught the fever. Disappointments along these lines, then and now, can be peculiarly damaging, as theologies are twisted and Scriptures denied in order to explain how our math turned out wrong. If we say, “We know from searching the Scriptures that Jesus will return by this date,” and He does not return, we are left with the choice of affirming either that the Bible is not clear, or worse, wrong, or that Jesus did something else important. (See the founding of Seventh-day Adventism for the latter response.)

As the twentieth century drew to its close, many of us suffered from the same folly. Whether it was 88 Reasons Jesus Will Return in 1988 or even the technological version of millennial fever that we who are Reformed tended to favor, we thought our math would show us the mind and plan of God. We were wrong.

There is, however, a number that has the power to reveal to us God’s will for our lives — first. Jesus commands that we seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. It’s the only number we need to know. Jesus not only doesn’t tell us to divine the day and the hour, He insists that no man knows this. He doesn’t tell us to cook our numbers so that we might read the future in their tea leaves. He tells us to leave all such foolishness and to be busy about the business of pursuing His kingdom.

Any study of church history ought to remind us of our folly. When we see the saints a thousand years ago thinking they could read the future, we should learn to better read the past. What they should have seen was hundreds and hundreds of more years of God’s people slowly learning to believe all His promises. What we should see is that we haven’t learned quite as much as we would like to think. Such ought not to discourage us. Instead, it should encourage us. We are not, as some would again have us believe, at the very end of history. We are instead at the beginning of His story. As we more faithfully seek His kingdom, we set the trajectory for centuries to come. We raise up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, that they might follow in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. We instruct them in the importance of instructing their children. And as many as are afar off seek first His kingdom and His righteousness. God’s kingdom grows not only wider over time, as the gospel covers the world as the waters cover the sea, it grows more deep as each generation succeeds the last in covenant fidelity.

Leave the numbers to our one true King. Seek first His kingdom, remembering that there is one faith, one baptism, and one Lord, world without end. Amen.

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